Friday, January 13, 2017

Album Review: Solarus - Reunion

I have had several lengthy arguments over the years regarding the nature and meaning of progressive metal. There are two different ways to define it, and there is no consensus about to be reached on which way we should go. So with the caveat in place that I have no idea whether or not I accept the term, let's move to the subject of prog/power metal. That specific area is the one that raises the most questions, and it is there that Solarus resides. This is where we get bands like Vanden Plas, Pagan's Mind, and now Solarus. It isn't quite power metal, and it isn't quite progressive metal, so we really need to find a catch-all term for it.

Solarus comes to us as a plucky, independent band, making their first statement entirely on their own. One thing I have learned over the years of doing this job is that you can't write off bands just because they come to you through alternative means. Last year, my second favorite album, and two of my top five, came from independent bands.

You wouldn't know this about Solarus just by listening to "Reunion". The sound is a big and polished as any major (for metal) label effort in this style. The guitars have the clarity and heft to match the best of the genre, and the mix puts the vocals in perfect balance with the music. Even with the democratization of music production, making a record that sounds this good is not an easy thing, so the band deserves kudos for giving us such a wonderful sounding album.

All of that would be a footnote if the music doesn't back up the technical successes. I will confess that this style of music usually does little for me. I can't say why, since I like all of the elements, but the end result usually sounds too sterile for my liking. Solarus, however, has made a record that exceeds the vast majority of prog/power that I've been hearing.

There is a major reason for that, and it's the vocals of Sarah Dee. While she doesn't have the most powerful or technically precise of voices, she has a brighter tone, and puts all the right effort into her performance. And in the vocal duets with the baritone of Matt Marinelli of Borealis, we get a version of 'beauty and the beast' metal that doesn't have to bring in the ugly scars of death metal to achieve the balance of light and dark. [Aside: Why do bands regularly bring in guest vocalists who sound so much like the main singer? The point of a duet is to have to different voices to play off. Right?]They can serve as melodic counterparts to one another, and the melodies here are all smartly written, and have just enough bounce to keep pace with the chugging guitars. Often, we hear these kinds of bands put forward chorus after chorus of flat, drawn-out notes, thinking that they are sweeping and epic. In truth, they're mostly tired and boring, and Solarus completely avoids them.

But this is a full band effort, and there is much to appreciate all around. The guitar playing is sharp and heavy, giving a meaty metallic undertone for the orchestral parts and the sweet vocals. Adding to that, we get some of the more effective solos in the genre, capped off with a truly gorgeous tone on them. The lead guitar is really a treat here, and used in just the right balance to showcase the playing without distracting from the songs. Lucas McArthur deserves plenty of acclaim for tastefully leading his band through his adept playing.

Often, the bands that play this style are either not heavy enough, or they coast on powerhouse vocalists, to wind up with a sound that is less than the sum of the parts. Solarus tweaks the formula just enough that they avoid every problem that could face a power/prog band. Their songs are heavy, intricate enough, dramatic, and wonderfully melodic. From "Shattered Skies", to "Prayer For The Fallen", and the immense title track, there is hardly a weak moment to be found on this record. This is not just an excellent example of how to make power/prog matter again, it's a record that unfolds a little more every time you listen to it. That means it will grow on you, and since it makes a good first impression, that means it's going to wind up being one of the better metal records of 2017.

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